Sunday, May 26, 2019

Somewhere in Gloucestershire


On the paper, on the ground

So it’s National Map-Reading Week. I’m not a great one for all the commemorative ‘weeks’ and ‘days’ that social media seem so keen on, but they allow people to promote good causes, so they can’t be all bad. I think map-reading is, if not a good cause exactly, certainly a good thing. I’m as likely as anyone to get out my phone and open the Map App when I’m in a hurry and trying to get somewhere in an unfamiliar city. But I believe that ability to plot one’s progress, step by step, on a proper map, taking in not just the thin line of the planned route but also the context – what lies on either side, in terms of landscape, settlements, and (you saw it coming) buildings – is an essential skill that should be nurtured.

One day when I was a teenager, I realised another unexpected benefit of being able to read a map. I had to sit an O Level exam* in Geography and for some reason I found the main part of this ordeal difficult – I’d not been bad at the subject at school and everyone else seemed to think the paper wasn’t hard, but somehow I didn’t connect with it. I thought I was staring failure in the face. I tried not to panic, and got down on paper everything I knew that seemed connected in some way with the questions, and hoped for the best. But there was another part to the exam, and this involved being given a section of an Ordnance Survey map of an unfamiliar bit of Britain and answering questions about it.§ Luckily, maps had always fascinated me. I was able to answer all the questions, and I was confident that my answers were right. No doubt my high marks in that part compensated for my abysmal showing in the first bit, and so I scraped through with a low grade. I’ve been thankful to map reading ever since.

I’d already discovered that maps helped me navigate effectively. I learned to recognise landmarks on paper, and use them to work out where I was, and where I was going. I saw that OS maps pointed out things like churches, telephone boxes, and industrial buildings often identified with the word ‘Works’†, and I was soon using these to tell my father, at the wheel of the car, where he should be heading: ‘Just past the factory, turn left by a telephone box’: that sort of thing. It made me more observant, and more appreciative of my surroundings. I like to think these qualities have stood me in good stead.

Having introduced myself to maps by looking at the one or two Ordnance Survey maps that we had at home, I realised that they opened my eyes, and my imagination. I could sometimes see places in my mind’s eye from just looking at the map. And when I came to be interested in architecture, I could see the buildings too – abbeys, churches, town halls, railway stations, ‘works’: there they all were. You don’t get this driving along using a satnav – though, heaven knows, satnavs have their uses when you need to get somewhere quickly – and I for one am sad that the rise of this powerful technology has meant that fewer of us get the thrill of map reading and the revelation it can bring.

Of course, there are Google Satellite View and Street View – hugely useful tools. They’ve helped me locate a building precisely on many occasions, and have led me to remote rural locations when the paper map in my car was not detailed enough and when the postcode information I’d put into the satnav sent me to a geographical area so huge it seemed to encompass half of Oxfordshire. But if we can’t read this information on paper, something has been lost: the thrill of seeing a place or a landscape came alive through the symbols on a map.

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* Subject-based examinations set in British secondary schools between 1951 and 1988 for students aged around 16. The O stood for ‘ordinary’. Students who stayed on at school after O Levels sat A (advanced) Level exams two years later.

§ My illustration shows a section of an early – 1907 – OS map for Dursley and Cam in Gloucestershire; clicking on the map will make it larger. I show this because it gives an idea of the ‘drawn’ quality of the early, pre-computer, maps, which I find pleasing. It features a fair share of landmarks: mills, churches, inns, farms, a Roman camp, etc, etc. Woods are green, and height above sea level is indicated by thin brown contour lines (and numerical heights for hill tops), just as on current OS maps. Although old, this map may be © Crown copyright.

† Often abbreviated to ‘Wks’. Ordnance Survey abbreviations (Fm, Wks, Tk of old rly) have a poetry of their own.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Quenington, Gloucestershire


Harrowing of Hell

Here’s the tympanum from the south doorway at Quenington, the north doorway of which was the subject of my previous post. This time, the subject is the Harrowing of Hell. Christ is seen piercing the body of Satan with a cross – or a spear with a cross at its upper end. To the right are three figures is positions of supplication – they’re said to have emerged from the mouth of the serpent at the bottom right of the carving, which symbolizes the mouth of Hell.  The whole scene is framed within a round-headed Norman arch, set on round shafts. A charming (and unusual) detail is the sun that shines above the figures, as if suggesting that they have come out and up into the light, which is symbolic of the Lord’s presence.

The framing arch is unusual and is smaller than the overall arch of the doorway, the zigzag carving of which is visible around the edge of the photograph. It’s as is the carving was originally intended for a smaller doorway. Or as if it was done by a different carver from the doorway and someone got the measurements wrong. The rather gawky result in a way adds to the charm.

In our postmodern, 21st-century way, we are apt to be affected by such naïve carvings, and even to be condescending about their simplicity. But to medieval Christians this was serious stuff: the descent of Christ into Hell, in order to bring about the salvation of those who were righteous but had had the misfortune to die between the beginning of time and the coming of Christ and had therefore ended up for a few centuries or more in the bad place.* It was a very real and dramatic image of Christ’s power and his ability to save souls.  However we think about that now, the carvings that such stories inspired still have the power to draw us in.

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* These souls were also said to be in Limbo, a region of Hell that was separate from the Hell of the damned.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Quenington, Gloucestershire


Coronation of the Virgin

While I’m in Gloucestershire, two more posts about a building in my home county that I’ve revisited recently. It’s St Swithun’s church, Quenington, one of the smaller and less assuming of the Cotswolds’ remarkable collection of parish churches. It’s a medieval building, but one much restored in the 1880s by F. S.Waller, a Gloucestershire architect who worked on quite a few local churches, but not always with the best of results. Waller rebuilt most of the western end of the church, added a vestry that was no doubt practically very useful but aesthetically far from ideal, and replaced an early-19th century tower with a picturesque bellcote.

Waller also built porches for the north and south doorways, and this is cause for celebration because these are the features of the building that really stand out and deserve protection from the elements. The doorways are Norman, of the mid-12th century, and remarkable. Here’s the tympanum over the south doorway. The carving depicts the Coronation of the Virgin and this in itself is interesting, as there are very few representations of this subject in England before the 13th century, when it – and the wider cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary – became very popular. She sits together with Christ, holding (it is said) a dove, while he crowns her. Round about are the symbols of the four Evangelists, two angels, and on the far left, an elaborate domed Romanesque building – either a church or, as Pevsner speculates, the Heavenly Mansions.
Detail of the Coronation tympanum, Quenington

I’m a fan of Norman tympana – see past posts about Elkstone and Great Rollright, for example – but I get particularly excited about this one for various reasons including its unusual subject and the depiction of an elaborate building. It’s a nice illustration of the way in which even an isolated village church can reflect notions, from the design of domed churches to the evolving reverence for the Virgin Mary, that were probably more current in far-away cities than in remote villages, but which had travelled there, via writings or word of mouth, carried by priests, monks, and stonemasons, among whom were the best travelled and most knowledgeable people of the Middle Ages.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire


Hidden industry 3: Handing it to them

My third example of Tewkesbury’s industrial architecture is just opposite the vast Borough Flour Mills in a recent post. It’s the Tewkesbury Brewery, built for Blizard, Colman & Company, and it shares the larger mill’s combination of red brick with blue brick dressings. There’s a band of stone running beneath the 1st floor windows that bears the building’s name, now visible only as a very ghostly image indeed. A closer view also reveals the careful details around the windows – the way the blue bricks are curved to meet the window frame, and the neat way they merge with the horizontal string course. The best detail of all is the roundel bearing a carving of a hand grasping a bunch of hops. This motif is repeated on the side elevation of this corner building.
The overall effect is similar to many industrial buildings of the mid-19th century – not so much in Gloucestershire as in neighbouring Worcestershire: I was reminded especially of some of the former carpet factories in Kidderminster. And the roundels and brick details give the structure that bit of swagger that I associate, not altogether unjustly, with brewery buildings of the Victorian period: the fine buildings of William Bradford spring to mind, although this is not, I think, one of his. After brewing ceased here, the building became a warehouse, but now it seems to be empty. Let’s hope someone finds a purpose for it, and soon.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire


Hidden industry 2: Able survivor

As I indicated in my previous post, milling in Tewkesbury goes back many centuries before the Victorian Borough Flour Mills were built. The earlier history of the industry in the town is beautifully reflected in the Abbey Mills, originally part of the property held by Tewkesbury Abbey at this end of the town, and rebuilt in the 1790s, long after the dissolution. Unlike the Borough Flour Mills, which were first powered by steam (later by electricity), the Abbey Mills were water-powered. There were four water wheels, of which one remains.

The structure is a focal point for this part of the riverside townscape, a once practical and now simply handsome collection of hipped and gabled roofs, mottled brick walls, and weatherboarded extensions and gantries – all this partly from the 1790s, partly the result of an extension in the mid-19th century. Harmonising with all this is the weatherboarded structure in the foreground, a relatively recent building acting as control house for a sluice installed in the 1990s.

Unlike the Borough Flour Mills, over the years the Abbey Mills have found a succession of new uses that have ensured the building’s survival. I remember it in the 20th century festooned with signs and  housing a café, together with shops selling antiques and souvenirs. It was then capitalising on its role as Abel Fletcher’s Mill in the best-selling Victorian novel John Halifax, Gentleman, by the writer known back then as ‘Mrs Craik’.* More recently it has undergone conversion to apartments, and is looking well on it from the outside at least. As I took my photograph, I was joined by a number of visitors to the town – some vocally envying the residents, some simply admiring the view.

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* I’ve read quite a few 19th century novels in my time, but the works of Dinah Maria Craik, aka Dinah Maria Mulock, aka Mrs Craik have passed me by. John Halifax, Gentleman is apparently a Victorian rags-to-riches story exemplifying the virtues of middle-class life. I’ve read it described by one critic as ‘moving’ and by another as ‘mawkish’.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire


Hidden industry 1: Cereal healing

The riverside town of Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire has a long history and has been well known for several things – for its magnificent abbey church (a place of pilgrimage for anyone interested in Norman or Gothic architecture), for the Battle of Tewkesbury (which in 1471 was one of the turning points of the Wars of the Roses), for its mustard (thick and hot like Poins in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 2*), for the picturesque mixture of timber-framed and brick architecture in its main streets. Look a little more deeply, though, and walk down two narrow streets called Red Lane and Back of Avon, and you find the remains of industrial Tewkesbury, and they’re impressive.

As in many towns, brewing was done in Tewkesbury on an industrial scale; as in numerous riverside settlements, boat-building was an essential activity. But the big industry in Tewkesbury was milling flour. There were earlier flour mills,† but the really large mill was Healing’s Borough Flour Mills, originally built for Samuel Healing by W. H. James in 1865 and expanded in various directions over the years.§ By the 1890s it was enormous and was said to be the largest flour mill in the world. Grain came in, and flour poured out, via the adjacent river, by rail, and by road. Water transport was still being used in the 1990s, with two barges regularly taking on grain imported from France and Germany at the Sharpness canal and carrying it to Tewkesbury. Although today most of the traffic on the Avon and Severn is pleasure craft and the railway has gone, the attractive and rather delicate iron road bridge into the mill remains, lovingly restored. The vast mill itself, however, closed in 2006 and now stands empty, with grass sprouting from the parapets and weeping willows surrounding and hiding the prodigious corrugated-metal extensions and silos on the far side.
What remains is still impressive: tall red brick walls, windowless for long stretches, relieved here and there by a little diaper-work, window arches, and cornice decoration in contrasting blue bricks; slate roofs; stone string courses; and a well carved stone giving the mill’s name and, for those with good eyesight, its date of original construction. There’s also a certain amount of additional equipment such as hoists. On a sunny day, the mill still manages to look impressive and not too heavily scarred by time and neglect. One hopes that a use can be found for it, so that it can remains, not simply as a bit of decaying history but also as an important asset to the town, just as it was for about 140 years.

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* See Shakespeare, Henry IV Part 2, Act II scene 1i, line 240, were Falstaff says of Poins: ‘He a good wit? Hang him, baboon! his wit’s as thick as Tewkesbury mustard, there’s no more conceit in him than is in a mallet.’

† There was a medieval water mill, known as Town Mill, somewhere near here, perhaps on this site, although this is not certain. Another early mill, the Abbey Mill, is a little further downstream and I hope to cover this in another post shortly.

§ Structural strengthening and extension in 1889, further extension in the 1930s, and further modifications in the 1970s–1980s; but large parts of the Victorian structure survive.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Ramsbury, Wiltshire


Pattern language

People who follow me on Instagram (where I am @philipbuildings ) may have noticed a while back that I posted one of those old black and yellow AA signs on a brick wall in Ramsbury. It occurred to me then that I should post a brick building from this Wiltshire town, and the blog seems the place for it because most of my readers look at the blog on a bigger screen than those of the mobile devices most often used with Instagram. Blowing up the picture by clicking on it will reveal the bricks more clearly.

Brickwork makes up a rich architectural language of patterns and this house is no exception. Many will recognise straight away the pattern of alternate stretchers and headers (the long sides and short ends of the brick) that makes up Flemish bond. That’s not unusual – Flemish bond is often seen on old brick buildings in England, though it’s not that common in Flanders, as Alec Clifton-Taylor and others have pointed out.* What’s different here is the use of darker bricks for those facing header-outwards. These are probably red bricks with ‘vitrified headers’, in other words headers that have been given a dark glaze at one end, either because those ends were facing a very hot part of the kiln, or the brick-maker added salt during the firing process, or a particular type of wood was used for firing.

This is an effect quite often seen in South Oxfordshire, Berkshire, and Wiltshire, where according to Clifton-Taylor the presence of lime in the clay fosters the darkening process. These grey vitrified bricks were fashionable from the 18th century, and sometimes you see a house with a front wall in grey bricks with the more common red bricks reserved for the sides and back. More frequent still are walls where the two colours alternate, as here, to give a variegated effect that I find delightful. It’s sometimes said that creating these patterns was a way of using up bricks that had partly darkened, and that may sometimes have been the case. But I’m more convinced that people made these choices because of their visual effect, which adds colour and interest to many a building in this part of Central Southern England. Long live vitrification!

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* See Alec Clifton-Taylor, The Pattern of English Building (Faber & Faber) for a feast of information on English traditional building and building materials.